History of Meridian, Mississippi - Golden Age

Golden Age

Shortly after the Civil War a central business district grew in the downtown area, leading to a population increase. By 1870 the population had grown to 2,709, and the city was named the county seat of Lauderdale County. This short-term growth led to the establishment of several educational facilities, including the Meridian Female College, founded in 1865, as well as diverse religious institutions, including Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish, and Episcopal. Before the war, most churches were either Baptist or Methodist. The growth during Reconstruction was set back when downtown was destroyed in a fire in 1871 during the Meridian race riot, related to freedmen's efforts to resist the Ku Klux Klan. Up to thirty black men were killed by a white mob.

The city quickly recovered and defined an 1872 fire district requiring buildings to be constructed of brick. The remainder of the 1870s saw hard times for the city, including economic troubles during the Panic of 1873, and a yellow fever epidemic in 1878. Yellow fever affected almost 500 residents, leaving at least 86 dead, which resulted in a quarantine in the city. Rail passengers entering the city were required to provide a health certificate certifying that they were free of the disease. Many of the fatalities from the riot and epidemic were buried in McLemore Cemetery. Despite these early troubles, the town experienced an economic boom and entered a "Golden Age" around the start of the 20th century.

The city flourished during the 1880s, adding electricity, running water, a sewage system, and paved streets and sidewalks within its limits. By 1885 the city became the railroad center of eastern Mississippi because of its unique location at the junction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, the Alabama and Vicksburg Railroad, the Alabama Great Southern Railroad, and the Kansas City, Memphis and Birmingham Railroad. The railroads provided for a means of transportation and an influx of industries, which caused a population boom. The 1870 population of 2,709 almost tripled by 1885 to around 8,000 and nearly doubled again to 15,000 by 1898. By 1906 the population had almost doubled again to reach 28,000, and the city was given the nickname "The Queen City." Between 1890 and 1930, Meridian was the largest city in Mississippi and a leading center for manufacturing in the South.

As the population grew, a commercial district developed in the downtown area, made accessible by a mule-drawn trolley system that connected different parts of the city. Industry profits helped finance the construction of most of the city's major buildings, including the Grand Opera House and its associated Marks-Rothenberg Store, which opened in 1890. The opera house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was combined with the neighboring Marks-Rothenberg Department Store and renovated in 2006 into an upscale theater and conference center. Together the buildings now comprise "The Mississippi State University Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts."

In 1894 the Wechsler School was built as the first brick public school building in the state for African-American children, after the full community passed a bond issue to build the substantial school. The school served the city until 1978. Since then, the building has been used by a variety of community organizations. The school was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 15, 1991, and in 1994 ownership of the building was transferred to the Wechsler Community Art Association. The association has a multi-year plan to renovate the building for extended community use.

By 1897 the mule-drawn trolley system was replaced by an electric trolley system, operated by the Meridian Street Railway and Power Company. The addition of this system increased economic activity in the downtown area and allowed the city to spread out. The trolley system eventually reached up to 10 miles (16 km) north of the downtown area. A significant business that developed in this period was Soulé Steam Feed Works, owned by George W. Soulé, which industrialized cotton and helped grow the lumber industry in the city. Partly due to Soulé's business, Mississippi was ranked sixth among the states in cotton seed production by the 1920s.

With traffic increasing due to a growing population, the city built Union Station in 1906 to coordinate all the railroads. Along with Union Station, several hotels were built, including Hotel Meridian, Grand Avenue Hotel, Terminal Hotel, and Union Hotel. By 1907 an average of 40 trains per day passed through the city, and the various railroad companies provided over 6,000 jobs to the city's residents. By 1920 as many as 100 trains per day passed through the station. The passenger station's central tower was demolished in the 1940s, and further demolition took place in 1966, but the city has since rebuilt the station in its original Mission Revival style. After its completion in 1996, the station was renamed the Meridian Multi-Modal Transportation Center.

The Fortnightly Book and Magazine Club, formed in the 1880s, built wide support for a Carnegie library in the city in 1908. Israel Marks, a city leader, also led a group including Professor Shaw, Professor Triplett, Dr. Howard, Jeff Wilson, Frank Berry, Henry Strayhorn, and John Harris, to raise money for an African-American library. The club women enlisted Marks to approach the national philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for funding assistance.

Two Carnegie libraries were built in 1913 — one for whites and one for African Americans. The latter was the first and only library for blacks in the state until after World War I and is the only Carnegie library ever built for African Americans in the country. The library for whites was established in a building originally owned by members of the First Presbyterian Church of Meridian, who sold it to the city on September 25, 1911. The city used the library for whites until 1970, when it was renovated and converted into the Meridian Museum of Art. The library for African Americans was built at 13th Street and 28th Avenue on land donated by St. Paul Methodist Church. It served various community uses after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregated facilities. Despite the demolition of the former African-American library on May 28, 2008, both buildings are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When a commission government brought 90 industrial plants to the city in 1913, industry in the city began attracting many settlers from the surrounding areas, causing the city's population to continue to climb into the 1920s. After World War I, the city erected a monument on the corner of 6th St and 23rd Ave depicting a doughboy in uniform to honor fallen soldiers from the city and surrounding area. During the industry boom of the 1920s, Meridian's automobile industry began to grow. Livery stables that were built around the city later evolved into service stations for vehicles.

In 1929 the Threefoot Building, Meridian's tallest skyscraper of seventeen stories, was built in the Art Deco architectural style. Today, the historic building, located adjacent to the former Grand Opera House, is an important city landmark and is a contributing building within the Meridian Downtown Historic District, one of nine recognized historic districts in the city.

Even through the stock market crash of 1929 and the following Great Depression, the city still attracted new businesses from surrounding counties. With high unemployment and low wages, though, escapism became popular not only in the city but in the entire nation. People began going to the theater to watch movies about the lavish lives of the rich and "escape" the troubles of their own lives. Capitalizing on this mindset was the S. H. Kress & Co. store chain with an outlet on 5th Street. Samuel Henry Kress, art collector and owner of the chain, exploited the cheap and readily available labor and materials of the time to build lavish stores to "provide luxury to the common man."

With popular culture moving from on-stage performances to motion pictures, the Grand Opera House became obsolete and was replaced by the Temple Theater. The new theater was constructed in 1928 by the Hamasa Shrine. With seating for 1800 persons, the Temple Theater was much bigger than the Opera House, allowing more visitors at a time. The theater currently houses one of only two Robert Morton pipe organs, equivalent to a 100-piece symphony orchestra, still installed in its original location in Mississippi.

After a short stall of the city's economy during the height of the Depression, the New Deal sparked renovation of some of the city's buildings including the Lauderdale County Courthouse in 1939. After about three more years of slow recovery, the nation entered World War II, providing an economic spark to the city. Railroads were essential to transport gasoline and scrap metal to build military vehicles, so Meridian served as the region's railroad center once again. This renewed prosperity lasted until the 1950s when the automobile and Interstate Highway System became more popular than passenger rails. The decline of the railroad industry caused significant job losses, whose combined economic impact resulted in a population decline as workers left for other areas. The population has since continued to decrease as the city has struggled to create a modern economy based on newer industries.

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